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Marathon Monday: Happy Memories of Patriot's Day

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Patriot's Day has always been my favorite American holiday.

Only someone who grew up in Massachusetts would say that, since most people in the rest of the country aren't aware that Patriot's Day is a holiday. But in Massachusetts, it's a big deal. For my entire childhood, we would get the third Monday in April off from school, so we could go cheer on the marathon runners.

Marathon Monday often coincided with my birthday, so for many years I would host a slumber party on Sunday night. Then on Patriot's Day my sleep-deprived friends and I would head down the road and sit along Commonwealth Avenue to hand out cups of water to the runners and gorge ourselves on birthday cake.

I remember hearing explosions the night before my eighth birthday -- not the kind of explosions that happened this week, but the other kind; the good kind. I crawled out of my sleeping bag and went to look out the window, and I saw a sky filled with fireworks. "They're fireworks for your birthday," my mother told me, but of course they weren't. They were fireworks for the Boston Marathon.

Boston is a beautiful, grand, historic, sensible city. The most beautiful, I think, but I know that I am biased, and anyway it's not a competition. Still, it's hard to imagine a city more beautiful than Boston in the spring, when the dogwoods are in bloom, the Charles River is glittering in the sun and our few skyscrapers stand triumphant against the sky. Specifically, it's hard to imagine a city more beautiful than Boston on Marathon Monday, when the streets are filled with people of all ages, pouring out their support.

I find it impossible not to cry at the Marathon, even on a happy day, when it goes the way it's supposed to. he power of watching thousands of strangers streaming past me, achieving this extraordinary feat of human endurance and strength. Every year, it brings me to my knees. Personally, I can't run for more than 15 minutes. But I can watch strangers run for hours.

And when you add in the reasons why people do it -- I mean, you'd need a heart of steel not to cry. I've seen young men running alongside their aging fathers, matching them step for step; I've seen women running with shirts or hats honoring friends who died from AIDS; I've seen cancer survivors; I've seen amputees; I've seen some of the world's finest living athletes. And the city gathers around them to call out their names and race numbers, to hand them orange wedges, to keep them going. This is a responsibility you have, as a Bostonian. I took it very seriously as an eight-year-old. I still do.

Nowadays, I'm usually not in Boston for the marathon. I moved to New York City six years ago, which is also a beautiful city, in its own way, but it's different. New York is big. A lot goes on here, all the time. New York has its own marathon, but it's easy to ignore or forget; this city is so big that a footrace involving thousands of people and spanning more than 26 miles is pretty easy to just not pay attention to. Boston isn't that way. There are a million New Yorks co-existing at all times: uptown, downtown, poor New York, rich New York, Chinatown, Little Italy, hipster New York, yuppie New York, Broadway, Staten Island (which I hear is part of New York). But there is only one Boston.

I remember where I was on the September 11 bombings, of course. I was at my high school in Boston, about a mile from Copley Square. And I remember thinking (because these are the things you have to tell yourself, to feel safe), "That happened in New York because New York is dangerous. I'm glad I live in Boston instead." But what I've learned as I've grown up is that anything can be dangerous, these days: office buildings or movie theaters or elementary schools or finish lines.

That's a terrible thing to have to learn.

It's a cruel thing to set off explosions in a public place, always. Everybody knows this. It's a cruel thing to do to people who may have just completed the greatest accomplishment of their lives, to people who are out today to honor or support a loved one. It's a cruel thing to do to so beautiful a city on so beautiful a spring day. The only explosions should be fireworks of celebration. That's how it's been for 115 years, and that's how it should be forever and ever, for generations of children to come.